Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Was Rachel Carson a Mass Murderer?

A new issue of one of my favorite magazines, Extra! is hitting the streets, with a blurb for my article inside on the cover. When I decided to get into political journalism, Extra! was the first magazine I turned to. Every other month they issue a brilliant magazine full of articles which collect and dissect the standard media narratives on a particular issue and then lay out the real story for you. It’s invaluable. I think of their work as a good digest of the news: you get the same misinformation you’d get everywhere else but you also get how and why it’s misinformation.

For my first piece, I decided to take on the noise machine that’s been loudly proclaiming in news outlets across the land that the environmentalist movement, headed by Rachel Carson, is responsible for the deaths of millions of African babies. Why? Because they discouraged the use of the noxious pesticide DDT, which was previously used for controlling the spread of malaria.

For the article, I dug into the science, interviewed the man behind the misinformation campaign (Roger Bate, a character straight out of Thank You For Smoking), and corrected claims from right-wing think tanks (no, Rachel Carson did not kill all those babies) and from blogs (no, the whole misinformation campaign is not funded by the tobacco companies).

You can read the full article on Extra!’s website or I’ve put up a version linking to all my sources.

An interesting footnote: As I noted above, Roger Bate insisted he had not been funded by the tobacco companies, as many have claimed. Instead, he said, their main original funder was the May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust. The trust, a $264 million California foundation started by a mining magnate, has the mission of “provid[ing] grants to organizations that serve the needs of children, the elderly, the disabled, and the disadvantaged.” However, it has also been a major contributor to the libertarian Cato Institute and George Mason University. Bate says that its trustee, Luther Avery, didn’t “agree entirely with everything I was suggesting” but at least thought “the debate was worthy of being exposed.”

In 2001, Luther Avery passed away, leaving his $400,000 a year trustee job to his son, Mark Avery, making Mark the fifth highest-paid foundation executive in the Bay Area (San Francisco Business Times, 11/14/03). But apparently that wasn’t enough — Avery stole $52 million from the Foundation and fled to Alaska. (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/10/07). This June he pled guilty and now he faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. (U.S. Attorney for Alaska, 3/6/07)

You should follow me on twitter here.

September 21, 2007


Misconceptions both on the right and the left? Argh… thanks for joining the flotilla of enablers that excuse the crimes of the right by pretending “both sides” are to blame.

No, DDT is a meme of the right. Most hardcore right-wingers have heard of it and think DDT is good because the left banned it. Most left-wingers have simply never heard of this idea.

You cite a bunch of right-wingers in this story. The closest I saw to someone potentially on the left was an opinion piece you sourced to the “San Francisco Examiner” — it was by Angela Logomasini of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

This is a case of out-and-out fraud by the right, fraud which has probably killed people in developing countries by discouraging Americans to the right of Bill Clinton from supporting programs that could actually save lives, like drug-treated mosquito nets.

Don’t be afraid to assign blame where it’s due. It’s the only thing that may save us.

posted by Jamie McCarthy on September 21, 2007 #

Sorry, it was just too hard to resist my one chance to play the “false balance” game. I’ve changed it to right-wing think tanks and blogs. Is that better? My point was not that both the right and the left are spreading these bogus myths — I was simply gently noting that a handful of blogs had made a mistake in responding to the right-wing myths.

posted by Aaron Swartz on September 21, 2007 #

i’m glad to have this article to link to because i’ve been aware of the upswell of pro-DDT stuff and wasn’t sure exactly where it was coming from, or how to address it. thx.

on another matter, the article with links you posted — is it supposed to be open to public editing?

posted by hapa on September 22, 2007 #

Hmm …


“Africa Fighting Malaria may not have gotten the money, but it sure looks like Bate did through ESEF or CCSI (ESEF folded about that time) and whether they passed it on and used it to found AFM is the real question.

With the like of Bate, one has to be precise.”

Often, “funded by X” can encompass a level of indirection, or be an oversimplification where the full version is something like “funded by X and fellow-travelers”.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on September 22, 2007 #

Just a very minor correction for this entry: The links for the SFGate and SFBT articles have been reversed.

posted by FrF on September 28, 2007 #

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